HTPC Windows Media Center

HDHomeRun Prime: CableCARD’s Last, Best Hope

Remember CableCARD? It was so promising: Let consumers buy devices of their choosing to access and watch cable service providers’ content. You could finally eliminate that clunky box you’ve been renting from the cable company to receive premium and high definition content. Just slip a small card into your TV or DVR, and voilà—all of your cable channels, including your premium movie, sports, and entertainment channels are available on your TV without a cable box.

CableCARD vs. the Service Providers

But there was a problem: cable companies make money from those boxes, and government mandates or not, they didn’t want to lose that revenue—or the control those boxes afforded them over your viewing experience. Providers did little to promote CableCARD, often discouraging customers from going down that path. If their rhetoric about how you’d lose two-way services like video on demand (another lucrative source of revenue for providers) didn’t stop you, they’d throw logistical roadblocks in your way, like requiring a (sometimes paid) technical service visit to “install” the card for you.

So digital cable ready (DCR) devices came and went, with few surviving save TiVo and a handful of lesser-known DVRs. For manufacturers, DCR devices required the added expense of a new hardware interface and had to go through a lengthy certification process. They weren’t going to waste R&D budgets on products they couldn’t sell.

CableCARD vs. Home Theater PCs

When CableCARD first came out, DIY home theater enthusiasts figured they finally had a solution to the HD content problem—home theater PCs were largely incapable of incorporating HD cable content, and most solutions that did exist required some sort of analog pass-through. With the digital transition looming and some cable providers falsely piggy-backing their move to more cost-effective digital services on the legislated OTA changes, home theater PC (HTPC) users hoped that CableCARD would be the answer to their problems.

Manufacturers started talking about CableCARD options for HTPCs, first connected by USB but ultimately built into the computer itself with a standard PCI card. And then they talked more about it. And more. And then the chatter died down. After years, only one device—a single-card, USB-connected interface from ATI—gained any ground, and even that was short lived. Costs were too high, CableCARD was failing elsewhere in the industry, and there just wasn’t enough demand or interest. Except from the enthusiasts.

CableCARD vs. the Enthusiasts

Enthusiasts have been clambering like an angry mob for better CableCARD solutions. Two companies—Ceton and SiliconDust—have had the moxie to promise and deliver to the market. These companies have literally taken years to develop, certify, and manufacture devices, and enthusiasts have been waiting with varying degrees of patience.

SiliconDust HDHomeRun Prime, as displayed at CES 2011

Ceton brought the InfiniTV 4, its long-awaited four-tuner PCI card, to market last year, with internal six-tuner and external four-tuner devices still pending. Ceton’s device was so popular that they only recently caught up with pre-order fulfillment. And now SiliconDust, the maker of network-based NTCS and QAM tuners, has opened pre-orders for its long-awaited 3-tuner networked CableCARD box, the HDHomeRun Prime. The Prime will work exclusively with Windows Media Center on Windows 7 computers, and it’s long overdue in the eyes of many Media Center users. SiliconDust is also introducing a six-tuner device soon. Both are due to be out by July.

CableCARD’s Last Stand?

In many ways, Ceton’s and SiliconDust’s devices seem like CableCARD’s last opportunity for consumer adoption beyond TiVo. Indeed, with new legislation mandating that providers allow consumers to self-install, the timing might be right for a CableCARD resurgence. But is it too late? Even the FCC seems to have admitted defeat at this point.

The longevity of CableCARD and its tru2way successors will depend on adoption beyond enthusiasts. As we’ve already seen, consumer electronics manufacturers can’t sustain a model with low adoption rates. To increase that adoption curve, the big names will need to start making some noise and champion this technology again. Maybe that voice should be Microsoft. One could argue that Media Center’s lack of adoption is, in some respects, attributed to CableCARD’s failure to date. Lets just hope that if they do take up this cause, they have better success than they did with HD DVD.

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About the author

Richard Gunther

Richard is a digital technology consultant with a life-long interest in consumer electronics. He has been immersed in smart home tech for decades now and hosts The DMZ's home automation podcast, Home: On and co-hosts Entertainment 2.0 with Josh Pollard. Richard looks at products through an experience lens, always seeking the right mix of utility and delight.